Did you have a Tío Victor in your family? You know the guy, the one the most colorful cuentos are told about for time immemorial. The one who is always tricking you or teasing you about a crush you have on your good-looking cousin, the uncle who drives his car too fast and has a dangerous sparkle in his handsome eyes. In my family that role was played by my Great Uncle Victor.
There have been tales about Victor floating around the family for years, and they become more fantastic with each retelling. My mother had told me that he shot a man over a woman and had to hide out in the hills until things calmed down, and ironically that later he was elected Sheriff of Guaynabo. Recently I found out that neither of these tales is true, but truth doesn’t diminish the legend of the man. The Victor I remember was a good-looking, white-haired, mustachioed man with laughing eyes. He was short but solidly built, and rugged. I remember being confused by his behavior when he hung around with us children. He acted as one of us, not as the gin-and-tonic-drinking, authoritative men that I was accustomed to, back in my New Jersey environment. He used to chase me and my cousins around the house with great glee, water pistol in hand, hiding in the bushes and jumping out as we ran by. I remember once I ran crying to my mother. He couldn’t understand why I was afraid, but in my world adults just didn’t behave like that. But even at my young age I knew that Tío Victor delighted my mother. He was her favorite uncle, and his recklessness only made him more appealing to her.
My earliest memory of Tío Victor was when I was five and we took our last trip to Puerto Rico as a family of seven. Victor took us to his farm in his old beat-up Jeep, the adults seated in the front seat as the five of us kids bounced around in the bed of the truck. I remember being thrilled by the freedom of riding with the open back, but also scared of the insecurity of it all. He drove up and down the hills of his vividly green farmland, and stopped at the top of the highest point. When I asked why we had stopped, he told me with a twinkle in his eye that we were out of gas. My parents threw their heads back and laughed, and my siblings clambered out of the back, leaving me alone and furious. How dare he not take care of this! How could an adult neglect to fill the tank with gas? I refused to get out of the truck, and I watched in disbelief as everyone happily walked around the jeep to the peak of the hill to look at the view. As I sat in the dark corner with arms folded and lips pouting, staring at the floor of the truck with fury in my eyes, I heard a wet, huffing noise. I looked up and saw three huge cow heads poking into the back of the truck, trying to reach me with noses sniffing and snot spraying in my direction. Their faces seemed to grow huge and hideous as they got closer and closer. I began to scream. Victor came running to the truck and shooed the cows away as my mother appeared, breathless, laughing as she realized what happened. Then she told me, with not a little bit of impatience and embarrassment, that they were harmless. I was appalled at the lack of understanding of my obvious brush with death, and pouted for the rest of the afternoon.
Nine years later Victor took my mother and me back up to that farm. The land had been gradually sold off as it had become very valuable, but he still maintained a small farm. After we had walked around the property for awhile, we got back in the Jeep (I’m sure it was a new one, but they all had the same mud-splattered, jalopy-like appearance) with me once again bouncing around in the back. As Tío Victor backed out of the farm’s dirt driveway onto the main road, he proceeded to drive backwards at 50 miles an hour. We were going in the right direction with the other cars, but backwards. I was terrified beyond words, and looked through the back window to my mother, my eyes begging for sensible adult intervention. I saw her with her head thrown back, laughing with abandon like a schoolgirl. From my rear (well actually forward) vantage point I could see the cars whizzing by in the other lane, and the passengers in the car in front of us, pointing at us with shock. I was old enough to know that crying was out of the question, so I covered my eyes with my hands and began to pray and whimper quietly. Eventually he pulled off and turned the Jeep in the proper direction, but I was petrified beyond words. For the rest of the ride, I just sat there gripping my comic books to my chest and staring out into space, wide-eyed and dazed.
But just a few years later, my own reckless streak emerged. I spent my teenage years as a punk rocker in New York City, hanging out with bands, wearing my hair spiked and dyed every color of the rainbow. I got my first tattoo at sixteen and lived a glamorous life of night-clubbing, Quaaludes and Catholic school. Unlike my mother, I had the luxury of acting out. I realize that her relationship with her Uncle Victor was very indicative of her own personality and it accentuated the differences and similarities between my mother and me. She spent her life behaving like the good girl, the straight-A student, the award-winning architect, the perfect academic’s wife, but inside she had a streak of the wild. Of Victor. Perhaps that’s why she drank for so many years. It must be hard to bury a part of yourself you cherish. She harbored a constant desire to shock that she had to squash for much of her life and it only came out during her visits with her beloved Tío. Oddly, when she stopped drinking the wild side of my mother really began to emerge. At that point in her life my father had been dead for quite some time, and most of us kids had moved out. She got more outspoken and bizarre with every year, starting with the tattoo she got for her 56th birthday. No wonder she related so well to Victor. They were, in many ways, cut from the same cloth.
But now as I find myself ensconced in middle age, mortgage payments replacing cover charges, medium ash brown haircolor supplanting lime green, I find myself riding the pendulum back to capture more of Mom’s true spirit and that of my Great Uncle Victor. To balance the “Inner Anatia”—named for my great aunt who was everything proper and stodgy—that waggles her finger at my spontaneity and residual recklessness. Now as I spend Saturday afternoon burning my vinyl Dead Boys albums into the computer and thinking back on my wilder days I vow to take more chances and have more fun. Kids like to be around me because, like Victor, I’m not afraid to be a fool and I don’t talk down to them but rather admire them for their Zen-like wisdom and unerring sense of fun. These days there’s nothing more exhilarating than standing at the top of Mount Mansfield with a snowboard strapped to my feet and throwing my body down a mile-long run flanked by teenagers who use the word “Dude” every other word. I think Tío would approve, however I draw the line at driving backwards, I’m not sure the Morrisville police will want to hear the tales of my great uncle Victor and how I want to channel him.